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Sew Set-In Sleeves With Ease: Helpful Tips

Sewing a set-in sleeve into a garment, in most cases, is a relatively simple task. But, truth be told, sometimes set-in sleeves can be an absolute sewing nightmare.

The difference between an easy insert and a challenging one has more to do with the fabric than the technique. Sleeves set in quite easily in fabrics that have a reasonable amount of give or stretch, like all varieties of knits, many woolens and fleece. But, for those with little stretch or give, like broadcloth, most shirting fabrics and hard cottons, the task is much more difficult.

Set-In Sleeve

The hallmarks of a sleeve that has been set in properly is one where the entire sleeve fits smoothly within the armhole. The sleeve cap fits over the shoulder point with a smooth finish where no, and I mean no, unintended tucks, puckers or gathers are present. Achieving that smooth, unblemished cap in some fabrics, however, can be a challenging task.

Here are a few tips that will ensure a beautifully set-in sleeve whether using a fabric with lots of give or those that are far less forgiving:

Pinned Sleeve Anchored at Underarm Sleeve, Ease Points and Shoulder Point

1. To begin, pinning the sleeve into the armhole, anchor it at key points — underarm sleeve, ease points and shoulder point.

2. While almost all textbooks will advocate sewing rows of ease stitching between the two ease dots, it really is not necessary, especially for fabrics with a lot of give or stretch. Even for fabrics with little to no give, ease stitching can be eliminated in favor of strategic pinning.

3. If ease stitching is preferred, always sew the rows with the right side of the sleeve facing up, so the bobbin stitches are on the inside or wrong side of the sleeve cap. Since the gathering or easing will be done from the inside of the sleeve, bobbin stitches are always much easier to gather.

Sleeve Pinned in a Flat State

4. When working with hard cottons or shirting fabric, which have very little stretch or give, it is sometimes helpful to set the sleeve in a more flat state. In other words, before either the garment side seams or sleeve underarm seams are complete.

5. If lots of pins are required to ease in the sleeve, which makes machine stitching quite cumbersome, hand baste the sleeve in place. This allows you to remove all of pins, which makes it much easier to maneuver through the machine stitching process. The hand basting will also help ease and set the fullness in place to avoid unintended tucks.

One of the keys to easing in any sleeve is to strategically pin the sleeve in place. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Sleeve Pinnted Between Front Ease Point and Shoulder Point

1. Pin in stages, or between anchor points (underarm, shoulder point, ease points, notches).

Tackle the difficult parts of the sleeve cap first. Start by pinning and then sewing from one ease dot to the shoulder point. Then pin and sew from shoulder to the other ease dot. Finally, pin and sew the underarms, which are typically cut to the bias and where easing is the easiest. Sew from ease point, around the underarm, and then to the opposite ease point to complete the armhole.

 Sleeve Pinned Halfway Between Anchor Points

2. When pinning between anchor points, pin halfway between those points to evenly distribute the fullness. If more fullness exists, pin again halfway between points. Repeat that process as necessary until all fullness has been evenly eased into place.

Sleeve Pinned Within Stitching Alley

3. Pin within the stitching alley. Since the final stitching will most likely be done using a 5/8-inch seam allowance, place pins within the 1/2 inch and 6/8 inch allowance. By doing so, it ensures no unintended tucking will result.

Set-In Sleeve Being Sewn

4. When ready for the final stitching, sew with the garment side up. The pins will be facing the throat plate. This allows the feed dogs to provide an extra measure of assistance in easing in the fullness.

5. Sew carefully and slowly. Use your fingers as you sew to keep the sewing alley smooth and free of tucks developing.

For further information on sleeves, see “Sewing Sleeves with Ease” and be sure to have a look at further information on garment sewing on Craftsy.

Have you had any trouble sewing in set-in sleeves?


Nancy Deak

It is a personal preference, of course, but it seems to me that sewing the gathering stitches is faster and easier than dealing with all those pins.


I agree with Nancy. I dont sew alot of clothing, but I do love to sew kids pajamas, using Butterick 5586 and vintage Simplicity 7068. The sleeve edges are longer than the sleeve opening, so they have to be gathered. I always fight with the sleeves and the collar every time I sew these PJ’s, no matter how many times I’ve sewn them. I’m still looking for the magic trick that will make it easier. I gather my sleeves to fit the opening, then I pin in place and sew. I think I sew with pinned the sleeve on top. I would LOVE to hear from anyone that uses these two patterns, or ones similar.

Lauren Siebert

Have you considered either shallowing up the sleeve cap, or lowering the armscye under the armpit? if you use these patterns frequently, one adjustment could be all you need for multiple sews. Measure the front and back of the armhole on the pattern and then measure the sleeve cap and get them within about a half inch of each other, then it should be easy to use the stretch and the give on a PJ flannel to stretch the arm opening to fit the sleeve.

The Stylish Stitcher

I used this method and it worked much better for me than sewing 2 rows of gathering stitches

Roller Scrapper

Thank you! My sleeves have always been wonky with a wrinkle or two on the bottom but I started sewing them with the sleeve down and the garment on top and I do think that really helps! Also you’re not trying to keep a bunch of fabric from jamming on the bottom as the sleeve is smaller than the garment. I always have the instinct to put the smaller piece of fabric on top but I’m going to do sleeves this way from now on!

Joan Holt

Thank you. It worked perfectly. Though I must admit I pinned all the way round and sewed in one go.
Which way should I press the seam?

Wendy Carman

Thank you so much for this tutorial Linda. I have always hated sewing in sleeves, but by pinning instead of gathering it worked perfectly and was so much easier. It was definitely better sewing the garment side up too, which is the opposite to what the patterns tell you to do.

Ms Lesley El-Banawy

I read your instructions on how to sew a set in sleeve with ease on 15th March as I have always had difficulty getting the perfect result. I have tried all other routes so after reading I decided to use the method you suggest with only using pins between the anchor points etc. I tried this with trepidation on the first sleeve I was rather nervousness and worked the machine very slowly I have to say I was amazed I got a perfect and I mean perfect set in sleeve as in your illustration. So on to the next I thought oh no I will not get the next one as good as the other it’s just a fluke. So I preceded and repeated the procedure on the final sleeve hooray did it again. Thankyou craftsy brilliant instruction. I am a perfectionist so for me to say it’s good means it’s good. I didn’t use anything other than pins.
Will be looking at more tops.
Thankyou again.

Susan Fischer

Recently, I have been making cotton blouses (with sleeves) and have gotten to the point of dreading setting in the sleeves because there are always puckers. Thank you for your very timely tutorial. I followed your instructions and though I still had a few puckers, I was able to repeat the pin/ease technique to get rid of them ….without loosing my religion!! Sewing the sleeve in flat helped tremendously, as did the pinning technique and sewing with the sleeve side down. I had never done it that way before and, now, cannot understand why I never tried it before. Thank you, again, for sharing your knowledge and talent!!


Thanks for these helpful tips…………..

Sandra Morris

I would like to add my thanks for the tutorial on set in sleeves. I have never been able to achieve even a reasonably decent job of this until I tried your way. It was fantastic.
Thank you so very much.


In frustration and, yes tears, I came searching for a way to sew in sleeves on a vintage dress I am making.
THIS! This is it! I have never had a sleeve go in so beautifully. I did use the million pins method and sewed very slowly, so it took me about an hour. BUT such wonderful results!
Thank you very much!


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